Just Say NO to Bland College Branding


I’ve been reading the recently released second edition of Differentiate or Die by Jack Trout, and there are some powerful (and timeless) messages there for all brands. Although the entire book is geared toward commercial brand differentiation, some of the comments relate directly to higher education marketing.

Trout takes on bland, meaningless product taglines with the same gusto I attacked college taglines that say nothing about the school in a previous Neuromarketing post. Here are a few of Trout’s ineffective tagline examples – see if you can match them up with their brand:
– “Your future made easier”
– “Yes you can”
– “Way of light”
– “Uncommon wisdom”
– “Shift”

For you advertising junkies, the correct answers are ING, Sprint, Suzuki, Wachovia, and Nissan. All of those phrases are so nonspecific they would serve equally well (or poorly!) for a college. (In fact, a little checking showed that “You Can” is the tagline for Calumet College of Saint Joseph in Whiting, IN, while “Yes You Can!” is used by Shenandoah University in Winchester, VA.)

These commercial examples exemplify the same characteristics as meaningless college taglines, like “Explore. Learn. Innovate.” To paraphrase Trout, you can spend millions to promote bad taglines, but they still won’t be memorable and they still don’t imply anything different about the brand (or college).

Trout even has a few words directed at college branding, and singles out one example of a college that has created a unique selling proposition:

Consider a college. The United States has too many colleges and universities: 3600 more than anywhere else in the world. They are similar in many ways, especially in their willingness to take government aid for grants and student loans.

Hillsdale College, 90 miles west of Detroit, has come up with a unique selling proposition to its conservative constituency by declining all of Uncle Sam’s dollars, even for federally backed loans…

Hillsdale’s pitch: “We’re free from government influence.” They reinforce this concept by positioning themselves as a mecca for conservative thought.

As one fund-raiser commented, “This is a product we can sell.” And they have the numbers to prove it.

That’s not to say other colleges should emulate the specifics of Hillsdale’s approach (which, of course, would be ineffective), but rather that staking out a unique selling proposition for a brand has major benefits. College marketers should look at their taglines and other branding efforts – if they could be used equally well by many other schools, scrap them! Bland branding, begone!

  1. McD says

    Surely this underlines branding is deeper than just taglines and communications… i.e. Hillsdale’s marketers could have not just decided upon this direction, it had to come from a committed executive – it would be interesting to know if their marketing team even had any input. HE needs more opportunity for marketers to contribute to org strategy so true brands (as opposed to empty communications pushing a generic product) can be developed at product level as well as promotions.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I agree, McD – branding messages can only reflect the underlying strategy and, one hopes, underlying reality as well. A clever slogan that lacks that basis won’t be effective for long.


  2. John Mills says


    I was recently involved in the re-branding of a very prestigious southern seminary, and I experienced this very challenge.

    The biggest hurdle in getting schools to embrace change and adopt a powerful, differentiating position is that decisions are made by a large “committee” of people – the marketing department, the board, professors, the president, alumni, the students, etc.

    With so many inside influencers/decision makers, all potency is diluted. They are victims of their own institutional bureaucracy. And…bland is safe. Being safe means no one will be upset with a decision.

    Colleges and universities are built (and billed) as hubs of revolution, change, growth and challenge. So, it’s all very ironic…and can be very frustrating for everyone involved.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      John, in that respect higher ed isn’t much different from business – there’s a tendency to decide by committee, and only diluted branding messages can pass muster.


  3. Seni Thomas says

    Best way to brand your college is to start a film school and have your school mentioned in every single movie/film/book about New York… Amen NYU…

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